It's a bright blue, sunny winter's day, and the reflection off the new white snow makes me squint. My breath freezes instantly in the crisp morning air, and little beads of ice form on my mustache. The snow, which was wet only the day before, now has a frozen crust and crunches under my steps. The cold came in the night, and made believers of all those who live outdoors. At sun-up the thermometer read 22 below zero, and felt like it. I pulled the old stocking cap down over my ears and tromp off through the snow for a walk.
A red-tailed hawk had been roosting in the sunshine. Now he soars over my head, letting me know with his raspy scream that I'm a trespasser in his territory. He doesn't push the issue too hard, though, and soon he flies off across the valley to find a good place for catching his breakfast. When the weather gets very cold, the main goal all wild animals have is to find something to eat.
High above the hawk, a half dozen black crows pass over. They call out to him, but they too have more need to eat than to play games.
A chickadee follows me through the prickly ash and small pines. He chatters in a happy way, and I wonder why he isn't off looking for food on such a cold morning. Then it dawned on me that the little bird might be looking for food from me—a handout, from the guy who fills the feeders back at the house. I often carry some sunflower seeds in my coat pocket, and I take off my gloves to check, but there's no handouts at hand on this walk.
I see where two deer had recently crossed in front of my path, and wondered if the chickadee had chattered at them, too. The star-shaped tracks of a possum crossed the creek. The frozen tracks were from the day before. Hopefully the possum found a warm place to hibernate until the cold passed. The ends of his bare ears and tail would certainly freeze at 20 below zero. I wonder if the chickadee had chirped at the possum, asking him what he was looking for?
The strong scent of a vixen (female fox) drifted down the valley, and before long I was following her tracks. I saw where she patiently stalked a meadow vole who had burrowed under the snow. I found the disturbed array of dead grass and snow, where she had pounced for her breakfast. The vixen is gone but the story lingers in her scent trail. I imagine the chickadee had a one-way conversation with her.
Nature's snow-covered trail leads me back to the house, where I almost felt a tinge of guilt as I stepped in the door. I warmed my cold bones near the wood stove and watched the busy birds out the window. They always seem so happy, in spite of the weather. As long as they can stay fat, they will be comfortable in their harsh winter world. My way of staying warm is a little different, so those who spend the winter outdoors humble me.
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